Do women have a meaningful role in global value chains, and why does this matter?

Integrating small-scale farmers into global value chains has been a desired objective of rural development over many years, but including women in the process has been problematic. IIED’s recent research explores what progress, if any, has been made and how things could change.

Emma Blackmore's picture Rachel Ajambo's picture
Emma Blackmore is a research associate in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets group; Rachel Ajambo is a Kilimo Trust country team leader for Uganda
13 October 2022
A number of women wearing brightly coloured clothes tend crops with mountains in the background.

Kilimo Trust support to women potato seed producers in Arumeru District Tanzania (Photo: copyright Kilimo Trust)

Smallholder inclusion is seen as one of the avenues to leverage investment, opportunities and better livelihoods into rural areas, and many donors, governments, businesses and development practitioners have worked hard to ‘do’ it well.

It can be good for businesses’ CSR (corporate social responsibility) credentials and can help open up new sources of supply, good for governments who hope to see the multiplier effects of formal trade in rural areas, and for donors in meeting their poverty alleviation objectives through ‘trade not aid’. 

Improving women’s empowerment and gender equality has been a major and complementary ambition for the participation of smallholders in modern value chains, as well as being a broader objective under the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.

IIED’s recent research – based on an extensive review of literature and interviews with key people – explored what we know to date about the impact of smallholder inclusion in global value chains (GVCs), including on gender equality and women’s empowerment.


Our research and Kilimo Trust’s vast implementation experience in structuring trade at national and regional levels, shows that while gender inclusion has improved as a result of more targeted efforts towards the empowerment of women and other vulnerable groups, progress has been patchy.

What are the difficulties?

There are a number of obstacles to women being empowered to participate successfully in GVCs:

  • Meeting the standards required – farmers need access to the necessary assets, inputs, skills and knowledge. Female farmers and businesswomen are already on a backfoot in these respects as they face greater barriers than men
  • Women usually have multiple roles – in the household and on the farm –  that can make it difficult for them to attend training, or to interact with men who may be their point of contact in trade negotiations
  • They may also face cultural or religious restrictions on their freedom of movement. This can limit their ability to participate in training or trade. 
  • Capacity building itself may be designed in a way that is not gender sensitive. In Tanzania, Madagascar and Ethiopia, for example, many women do not have access to extension officers (most of whom are men) and therefore training, because it is seen as inappropriate to be engaging with them. Or it could be that only the household head is permitted to engage, and household heads are typically men
  • Women do not usually own land. Men are therefore more likely to decide which crops to grow, and take control of commercial crops and the resulting income. That makes it harder for women to make decisions to engage in new trading relationships, especially those that come with more stringent production and trading terms, and
  • Because women lack control in the cultivation and trade of higher value crops such as export-quality avocados, they often opt out of participating in these chains and focus on lower-value markets instead. (Conversely a mango grower we spoke to in Kibwezi, Kenya, noted that the women who do benefit from export arrangements tend to be the heads of their households, ie widows or single mothers).

Addressing the imbalance

As a response to the challenges of including women in GVCs, some donors and other organisations have focused on women’s economic inclusion through alternative livelihood activities, or different value chains beyond the core cash crops.

While this might seem like an easy way out, a 2018 study showed that as markets develop for female-dominated commodities, gender relations can change for the better. For one such commodity in Brazil (babassu oil), men have taken on more domestic responsibilities as the women successfully engage in production.

However as certain commodities become more profitable, men may see the financial rewards and, as the key decision maker in the household, position themselves to reap the benefits. For example as demand for sweet potatoes grew in Malawi, men took over seed production and trade – roles traditionally occupied by women.

This can bias women’s engagement towards less-profitable crops. They are more likely to access contract farming arrangements for crops with low upfront costs and low margins, such as beans, rather than crops such as coffee, which demands large upfront investments but delivers greater profit.

What are the potential ways forward?

  • Monitoring and evaluation of the impact of inclusion programmes on female empowerment is as important as practical implementation. The conventional focus on households rather than on the individual can conceal impacts on income, decision-making/agency and wellbeing – all of which are important determinants of women’s empowerment. Appropriate tools are needed to better monitor gender-related aspects, such as measuring intra-household decision making as a baseline and monitoring change over time.
  • Include men and women from the same household in training sessions. 
  • Create safe spaces for both men and women to openly discuss decision making, asset control and income management in the household. These can help facilitate the removal of deep-seated cultural barriers.
  • Better support women’s engagement in informal markets – which often have a more favourable trading environment for them. Policymakers need to understand these markets better, engage with informal actors and invest in infrastructure to support upgrading.
  • For women to benefit from participation in global value chains, they ultimately have to have control over resources, decision-making power and freedom of movement, among others. Land rights is a key constraint and isn’t an area where most interviewees felt they could intervene. There is clearly also a vital role for donors, civil society organisations and policymakers to influence structural factors (public policy and laws around land tenure) that are beyond the control and core business of companies.

About the author

Emma Blackmore is a research associate in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets group

Rachel Ajambo is a seasoned agribusiness expert and the Kilimo Trust’s country team leader for Uganda, based in Kampala

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